Civics: Why Democracy Is on the Decline in the United States

Evan Osnos:

The latest edition was published last week, and, as you might expect, it recorded the fourteenth straight year of deteriorating freedom around the world; sixty-four countries have lost liberties in the past year, while only thirty-seven registered improvements. (India, the world’s largest democracy, has seen some of the most alarming declines.) Its assessment of the United States is also disturbing. In 2009, the U.S. had a score of ninety-four, out of a hundred, which ranked it near the top, just behind Germany, Switzerland, and Estonia. In the decade since, it has slipped eight points; it now ranks behind Greece, Slovakia, and Mauritius. Looking at the United States, Freedom House analysts note the types of trends that they more customarily assign to fragile corners of the globe: “pressure on electoral integrity, judicial independence, and safeguards against corruption. Fierce rhetorical attacks on the press, the rule of law, and other pillars of democracy coming from American leaders, including the president himself.”

Explaining what, exactly, accounts for this decline is the work of a growing body of literature. Much of it focusses, of course, on the tenure of Donald Trump, but, interestingly, some scholars and advocates tend to identify a point of origin well before the election of 2016. According to Protect Democracy, a legal-watchdog group dedicated to combatting the rise of authoritarianism in America, “the growth and spread of democracies that defined the 20th Century peaked in the early days of the 21st; since 2005, the state of democracies around the world has receded.”

One of the most frequently cited theories for this change is depicted in what’s known as the “elephant graph.” The graph, which the economist Branko Milanović popularized, in 2013, is, in fact, a chart that shows income growth by stratum (or, in technical terms, by “percentiles of the global income distribution”) in the twenty years leading up to the 2008 global financial crisis. The graph got its name because it looks like an elephant: on the left, there is a plump body of rising incomes—China, India, and other beneficiaries of globalization—and, on the right, a rapidly rising trunk, which reflects the spectacular fortunes of the world’s top one per cent. The most politically significant part of the elephant is in between: the bottom of the trunk, which shows the stagnant incomes of American and European working and middle classes. Those groups have proved to be fertile bases of support for populist rebellions against democratic traditions that, from their vantage point, now appear false or obsolete.